Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Talking Animal Picture... Is History Somewhat Repeating Itself at Disney Animation?


Will Zootopia remain Disney Animation's highest-grossing film of this year? 

Let's go back to fall 1992... Nearly twenty-four years ago.


Aladdin is a massive hit, both critically and commercially. Grossing a record-breaking $217 million at the domestic box office and an equally amazing $504 million worldwide, Aladdin was the biggest film of the year and a rare animated film that - unadjusted - sat alongside live-action blockbuster heavies that easily made $200 million throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Films like Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Ghost, and several others...

This came off of an upward slope of hit films. After The Great Mouse Detective turned out to be a profitable film after the disaster that was The Black Cauldron, the recharged Walt Disney Feature Animation saw big hit after big hit, barring the frustratingly tossed-aside Rescuers Down Under. Oliver & Company broke $50 million domestically, The Little Mermaid soared past $80 million, Beauty and the Beast pocketed an amazing $145 million... Then came this monster. Disney was in the midst of their upward climb, their big mania of the early 1990s...

In deep development at the time were The Lion King and Pocahontas...

The prediction was that Pocahontas was going to be the one, the next big thing. Beauty and the Beast had gotten a Best Picture nomination - a first for an animated feature and a rare one for Disney - and it ultimately didn't win for obvious reasons, so the plan was to get that Oscar, to make that winning picture. Pocahontas moved forward because, hey... A Beauty and the Beast-esque Dances with Wolves-type movie that taps into the dark side of American history and the treatment of Native Americans seemed like a surefire hit, no? Jeffrey Katzenberg clearly wanted this to be the film that would get the Oscar Beauty and the Beast did not get.

The Lion King on the other hand? That was the "experimental" film, the talking animals movie. The mindset at the studio - for the most part - was that Pocahontas would be the bigger film, the grander film, the "event" picture...

 
Production on The Lion King eventually roared up, and after the studio fixed its multiple story issues - issues which got it delayed from a fall 1993 release to the summer of 1994, it seemed like it was gaining momentum. Hype came about the day people sat in dark theaters and heard the loud opening chant of 'Circle of Life' boom from the speakers... The whole opening sequence of the film was the teaser trailer! It got people so excited. Disney pulled out all the stops with the marketing, and out of nowhere... The little talking animals picture grossed an unprecedented $312 million at the domestic box office and an amazing $768 million worldwide.

You could only imagine the conversations they were having that year...

The "prestigious" Pocahontas was backed by an equally aggressive marketing campaign. Its 'Colors of the Wind' sequence was the teaser trailer, and again, everything was thrown into it. It didn't open as high as The Lion King, though it posted a very good number in its own right, and the legs weren't very good. It grossed less than Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, both domestically and worldwide.

This was mostly because the picture wasn't very good, and that the formula - which was present in the previous Renaissance smash hits - was beginning to wear thin and maybe wasn't appropriate for a subject like Pocahontas...

This year has seen the release of Disney Animation's all-animal adventure Zootopia, and will also see the release of an epic Broadway-style musical comedy-drama in the form of Moana...


A lot of us all thought that, in terms of box office, Moana was easily going to be the bigger film while Zootopia would still do well. Others wrote Zootopia off entirely, calling it a "DreamWorks" film or "the next Chicken Little", a sure flop. Moana, being the 90s-style musical with a princess lead, inevitably got the attention...

... And with all those ads focusing on selfying animals and silly sloth stuff, who would've thought it would be this big? Zootopia is zeroing in on a billion-dollar worldwide gross, and if it ultimately doesn't get there, $930 million+ is still incredible! Its critical reception is the best for a Disney animated feature since the Renaissance days, and is up there with the best-received Pixar powerhouses. People I know who were skeptical of it ended up loving it.

The talking animals picture...

Quality-wise, Moana should be up there with Zootopia. However, I think it's locked to be a hit because, unlike the 90s, this isn't coming right off of a similar movie. That, and several other reasons. Moana, Frozen, and Tangled are pretty much the modern-day 90s/Renaissance movies, Broadway-style musicals starring princesses. Thankfully, Tangled and Frozen are very different stories despite having some similarities, and the same goes for The Princess and the Frog. This trio of princess musicals aren't the same exact film. Moana looks to be its own thing, too. The 90s on the other hand... Very few elements differentiated the films of that era, and audiences caught onto that.

Moana is also an original story, so it can do whatever it pleases, without snoots crying about it taking liberties with something. Pocahontas is an example of the 90s formula not working, as it was not appropriate for the story it was being applied to. Moana on the other hand is just fine, so long as the story and script are great.

When Moana opens this coming Thanksgiving, Frozen will be three years old. Inbetween these two films we got the techy superhero fun of Big Hero 6 and the high-stakes 48 hours adventure Zootopia. Plus, competitor studios are mostly making pictures that aren't like Frozen and Moana. Back in the early-to-mid 90s, competitors mostly imitated Disney musicals. So there's no real fatigue or anything...

Moana could very well outgross Zootopia, as long as it's great and hits the right beats for audiences the way Frozen - a film I myself am not all that big on - did. But Zootopia's success kind of came out of nowhere... Were non-fans and people who don't follow movie news prepared for its themes? Its great story? Its action and creativity?

I think it's going to be close. Frozen, to me, is one of those films that just hit everyone. That's rare, a real once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon. Moana shouldn't be expected to top that, and it may have a chance, but I think Moana might end up settling for a lower amount. The question is, does it top Zootopia? If it doesn't, how far behind will it be? In order to pull a Pocahontas, Moana would really have to disappoint, but it doesn't seem like it's going to do just that - especially with Walt Disney Animation Studios being very stable under John Lasseter's stewardship. At their worst, in my opinion, they are still doing quite well...

Pocahontas' gross in comparison to The Lion King was underwhelming, but Moana I think will easily top $800 million worldwide. I think audiences will treat it like a semi-sequel to Frozen, much like how audiences treated Beauty and the Beast as "Little Mermaid Mach II", "the next Little Mermaid", you get my idea?

Anyways, it'll be interesting to see which picture ends up on top by the beginning of next year... The animal picture? Or the "classic" 90s-style picture?

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